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How Should This Retailer React To A Former Employee's Accusations Of Employment Discrimination?

She was let go during the pandemic, but the retailer's new job posting seeks someone for half the pay.

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CHRISTINE KALEN HAD been with Goldman Jewelers for nearly 30 years. Well … sort of. Christine started with the mid-size national chain when she was 18 and just out of high school. After deciding that college was not on her “to do” list, she got a job at the newly opened Goldman store in the local mall and learned quickly that she loved both sales and fine jewelry. Her manager and district manager could see that she was a natural, and they ensured that she got the training she needed to support her innate ability. Christine was one of the top salespeople in the company by the end of her second year in the store.

ABOUT REAL DEAL

Real Deal is a fictional scenario designed to read like real-life business events. The businesses and people mentioned in this story should not be confused with actual jewelry businesses and people.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kate Peterson is president and CEO of Performance Concepts, a management consultancy for jewelers. Email her at [email protected]

While her sales were off the charts, Christine’s immaturity and perpetual penchant for drama created ongoing challenges for Goldman management. Over the years, competitors’ recruitment efforts, disagreements with management and a variety of personal issues prompted Christine to leave the company on several different occasions. However, after periods ranging from a few months to three years, she would always respond to company overtures to bring her back, and Goldman, it seemed, was always glad to reclaim her ability and her productivity — despite her “high maintenance” reputation. As Rick Ammons, Goldman district manager, was known to say, “A million in sales covers a lot of behavior problems.” A consummate negotiator, Christine made sure she came back each time with a raise in pay and her company tenure restored.

In January 2020, Christine was beginning year nine of her longest continuous stretch with Goldman. While occasional challenges persisted, her willingness to accept a transfer to the company’s largest store, a 45-minute commute from her home, helped drive her 2019 sales over $1.3 million while her negotiated immunity from reductions in the company’s commission structure pushed her income for the year over $85,000 — making her one of Goldman’s highest paid salespeople. The long commute was taking a toll on her personal life, though. So during a February meeting with Rick, Christine made it clear that she wanted — and expected — to be moved back to a Goldman store closer to her home. Rick assured her that although there wasn’t an opening available at that point, he would work something out for her as quickly as he could.

With many stores in local and regional malls across the country, Goldman Jewelers was hit by the COVID-19 pandemic especially hard. By late March, all but a few of the company’s stores were closed completely. Store employees were furloughed while Goldman stepped up their e-commerce positioning in an effort to stay afloat. Over a three-month period, the company was forced to assess the potential value and profitability of each of their locations, and ultimately decided to close just under a third of their stores permanently. When the remaining stores began to reopen in June, managers were brought back first, many taking reductions in position and pay in exchange for a guaranteed spot in the reconfigured Goldman structure.

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As one of the furloughed workers, Christine was content collecting enhanced unemployment. When Christine got the call to return in early July, she was told that the only spot available for her was at a lower volume store nearly an hour away from her home. Rick assured her that the placement would be temporary, and that he would personally see that she was moved to the store they had discussed prior to the shutdown as soon as possible. Christine decided that the commute combined with the significant reduction in commissions would make going back to work a less-than-sensible option for her, so she declined the position. After three more weeks of “official” furlough, she received a letter from Goldman terminating her employment.

When her unemployment benefits ran out a couple of weeks later, Christine began her new job search in earnest, starting with a deep dive into the major online job sites. She was shocked while exploring Indeed.com when she saw that Goldman had posted an opening for an assistant manager — which she knew was essentially a top salesperson with store keys — at the location closest to her home. Furious, she dashed off a text to Rick, asking what was going on, and why she wasn’t called back for the job. He told her that once she was officially terminated, she was no longer eligible for reinstatement, and that if she was interested, she could apply for the job as a new employee. In a subsequent text, he added that it wasn’t personal … that they just needed to find a “young person who could help with social media” while also filling the sales position. Christine knew immediately that something wasn’t right, as Goldman employees had always been expressly prohibited from involving the company in any social media activity. When she looked at the posting again, she noticed that there was no mention of social media skills, and that the job was listed with an hourly rate that was less than half of what she had been making previously.

Without a second thought, Christine took to social media herself, telling her story in tweets and Facebook posts, as well as in Google, Yelp and Glass Door reviews. She made it clear that in her view, Goldman was using discriminatory hiring practices and was taking advantage of the pandemic to get rid of their higher paid employees while hiring new ones at sub-standard wages.

The Big Questions

  • Is it reasonable for a company to use an available opportunity to move a highly paid, high-maintenance, long-term employee along in favor of someone younger, less experienced and less expensive?
  • How should Goldman senior management deal with Rick, the district manager who put the company at risk with his unrealistic promises and unfortunate choice of words in response to Christine’s question about the job posting?
  • As an employer, would you hire Christine — knowing only that she was a million-plus producer?
Peggy W.
Chesapeake, VA

The company should have an employee handbook, as well as regularly reviewed performance plans. If Christine’s “drama” was such a problem, she should have been put on an improvement plan immediately. If she could not improve her performance based upon that plan, then she should have been terminated. The repeated hiring back of this employee, no matter what her sales performance, is negatively disruptive to staff and customers and not wise at all on the part of management.

Rick made a stupid and possibly illegal mistake in his choice of words and timing when terminating Christine. His performance plan should be reviewed and proper training put in place. A manager who does not understand the word discrimination does not belong in the workplace.

The entire situation reflects very poorly on the ownership of the company. It is clear they lack correct rules and regulations with which to encourage appropriate employee development. Mistakes like this come from the top.

Albert D.
Fords, NJ

Goldman Jewelers did so much wrong here. They are in for a lot of problems if everything said in this article can be proven. I see age discrimination as one. They better meet with her and come to an agreement, or else they will be sitting down with her attorney.

Stacey H.
Lincolnwood, IL

Rick needs to be given a discipline interview and some extra training on “what not to say” because he’s going to land Goldman’s in a discrimination lawsuit. Christine produces over $1 million in sales annually; if they don’t hire her back and pay her $85,000 per year, they’re idiots. Whatever personality disorders she comes with, she’s a stellar seller, and that more than anything justifies her high rate of pay. As long as she’s not hurting people or driving drunk to work, she is more important to the survival of the business than a twentysomething posting on Facebook and Instagram.

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Marcus L.
Atlanta, GA

If Christine was such high maintenance, there should have been a plan in place to meet with her and discuss the issues fair and honestly. I think she expected special treatment because she was promised it in the past and was able to secure the promises. Rick should not have been so bold as to make a promise he couldn’t keep. Even though Christine might have been a handful, in the end I think she was not treated right. Can’t blame her for being upset. Seems like the situation should have been handled more professionally. I was once a jewelry manager and handled similar situations (pre-COVID), but it was a much more cordial and different outcome that all parties clearly understood and were at peace with in the end.

Dwaine F.
Omaha, NE

No, I would not rehire her. Too much past conflict.

Elva V.
Dallas, PA

I would not rehire. The company gave her an opportunity to return to work, which was refused. That means the same or similar job is open and anyone may apply. Times have changed. Stores need people who can multitask and help with social media or web sales, as well as in-store sales.

James O.
Fresno, CA

Once a person is released, the store has no obligation to rehire. Although she was a million-dollar-plus producer, I would not rehire her because with that past baggage it sounds like she often created a toxic environment. This can be much more damaging to the store personnel and reputation, as well as the potential hostage situation she creates with management. A million-dollar producer can be replaced, and usually money is not the issue.

What’s the Brain Squad?

If you’re the owner or top manager of a U.S. jewelry store, you’re invited to join the INSTORE Brain Squad. By taking one five-minute quiz a month, you can get a free t-shirt, be featured prominently in this magazine, and make your voice heard on key issues affecting the jewelry industry. Good deal, right? Sign up here.

Kate Peterson is president and CEO of Performance Concepts, a management consultancy for jewelers. Email her at [email protected].

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